Friday, 19 October 2018

Transitioning to incomprehensibility

Following the twists and turns of Brexit has often been a complex matter but in the last few days, for I think the first time, I have really struggled to understand what is going on and why. The idea of an extended transition period was floated by Michel Barnier, apparently as a concession to the UK. Which in a way it is, to the extent that originally Britain had sought a longer transition; two years rather than the 21 months envisaged in the phase 1 agreement. It got pared back to December 2020 in order to fit in with the EU budget cycle.

Yet Barnier’s suggestion was greeted by Theresa May as a new EU demand to which she might, with concessions, accede. Meanwhile Brexiters reacted with fury, calling it a plot to keep Britain locked into the EU (apparently unaware that the increasingly predominant view in the EU is that the sooner it is rid of Brexiting Britain the better) and remainers seemed unimpressed.

The argument for such an extension appears to be that it would give more time for the future trade terms to be agreed. This in turn would mean that the Irish border backstop would never be needed, and there would be a smooth shift from transition to those new terms. That, in itself, might not be enough to get a deal done on the Withdrawal Agreement, if May sticks rigidly to the recent line that writing in a Northern Ireland only scenario could never be acceptable. But, if she moves on that, it might conceivably be enough to persuade MPs – apart from the DUP, anyway – to agree to such a deal on the basis that it was entirely hypothetical.

However, and this is the really puzzling thing, it is just not clear why an extension would make any difference. One issue is simply time: even with a 33 month transition it seems extremely unlikely that a trade deal will be completed and ratified. The other, more important, one is that it is inconceivable, at least on my understanding, that any trade deal would avoid the border issue re-emerging. The only way that could happen would be if the ultimate trade arrangement was for the whole of the UK to remain in the single market and some form of customs union. Back to Norway (+) which the government has ruled out, but which could, I suppose, come back on to the table in the future, especially if the Political Declaration is sufficiently vague.

Incomprehensibility is now the aim

The puzzle, though, is solved by recognizing that the negotiations have now entered a phase when what is proposed is not meant to be comprehensible. The political imperative now is not to find something that makes sense but to make a deal – any deal – that can get through. That is common enough in diplomacy, and it is especially evident when there is a need to accommodate massively divergent views. Indeed, the Irish peace process is a good example of it, with many of the constructive ambiguities that enabled its success being dependent on the fact of both Ireland and the UK are EU members, hence the threat that Brexit poses for it.

That comparison is a revealing one, because it suggests that the reason the Brexit talks are now in the territory of such diplomacy is that they have become so riven by conflict and irreconcilable positions that increased use of incomprehensibility – to facilitate multiple readings – is necessary. The same thing happened, albeit to a much lesser extent, with the phase 1 agreement. That had a bit of ambiguity in it with the consequences we’ve seen when it got drafted into legal text for the draft Withdrawal Agreement, which removed those ambiguities. The price of getting the final Withdrawal Agreement deal done only by use of much greater ambiguities would be that it would not settle anything in a substantive way, with future interpretations and re-interpretations being made by all sides.

The dangers of incomprehensibility

If so, I see great dangers ahead. First, it will set up years of claim and counter-claim (in what will, of course, be on-going negotiations between the EU and the UK on future trade terms) about what exactly the parameters of those talks are and, ultimately, when and how the backstop will come into play. Second, and relatedly, it will means years in which British domestic politics continues to be divided and entirely dominated by Brexit. Third, and related again, it will mean years in which Britain’s global role and reputation are solely bound up with the pursuit of a project which other countries see as, at best, incomprehensible and at worst reckless.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it will lead to a gradual, slow-burn economic decline as more and more businesses relocate more and more of their operations; and as individuals, whether British or EU-27 national continue to re-locate themselves, for both economic and cultural reasons. For it shouldn’t be forgotten that in this scenario the possibility of a no deal cliff edge won’t disappear, it will just be postponed. We will have avoided the massive bang of a 2019 no deal and replaced it with an economic depth charge slowly but surely eroding investment, jobs, taxes and public services.

Cobbling together some gloop of backstops and double backstops and potential transition extensions is probably the worst of all worlds, pleasing neither leavers nor remainers. Leavers will see no Brexit dividend, no resurgent Global Britain, and far from taking back control will have abdicated it. Remainers will have lost all hope of EU membership, at least in the short and medium terms.

An unsettled future

Far from the referendum having ‘settled the European issue for a generation’ this will leave it unsettled for a generation. A vote to leave always had that danger, but a practically workable and politically consensual soft Brexit would have minimised it. Instead, the government’s initial embrace of hard Brexit and the subsequent backtracks in the face of its predictable and predicted unworkability have created an intractable mess that dooms us to years of political bitterness and economic limbo. And this, remember, is the scenario even if a deal can be done that gets ratified by all the bodies that need to ratify it.

In such circumstances, it’s not surprising that both sides of the debate are polarising in search of more clear-cut outcomes. That is both a condition for and a consequence of the drive for ambiguity and incomprehensibility. For Brexiters, it means ‘clean Brexit’ which seems to imply a kind of ‘soft no deal’ (i.e. no Withdrawal Agreement but side deals on things like flying rights). For remainers it means a People’s Vote in the hope of a decision to stay in the EU after all.

So I think that that is where we are at the end of this week: Brexiters and remainers are in different ways trying to cut through the Gordian Knot that has been created over the last two years, whilst the British government and the EU, again in different ways, are trying to wrap it over with new and even more fiendish knots. Meanwhile – to mix Greek myth metaphors – the Sword of Damocles hangs over our heads by a thread.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Brexiter attacks on the civil service point to the wider dangers of faith-based politics

As Brexit develops it become ever clearer that whatever happens is going to be nothing whatsoever like what was promised by leading leavers. But, of course, rather than draw the obvious conclusion – that those promises were impossible fantasies – they blame everyone and everything other than themselves. The worse Brexit becomes, the more certain they are of their rightness and that they are the victims of betrayal.

Of the many groups in line for the blame – the EU, remainers up to and including ‘Theresa the remainer’, the judiciary, academics, the BBC – civil servants are currently under the greatest attack. As I pointed out in the very first post on this blog, suspicion and criticism of the civil service started almost immediately after the referendum, with it being positioned as the epitome of the ‘pro-remain establishment’ bent on thwarting ‘the will of the people’.

Olly Robbins has recently emerged as the Brexiters’ chief bogeyman, with juvenile booing of his name at the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ meeting at the Tory Conference. He is attacked particularly for having supposedly out-manoeuvred David Davis – not, perhaps, something that would require particularly Machiavellian cunning – to produce the Chequers Proposal. Things have reached such a pitch that the acting Head of the Civil Service took the unusual step this week of writing to a national newspaper to defend Robbins from his critics. Meanwhile, the head of HMRC has received death threats for giving evidence to a Select Committee – that is, for doing his job - on the costs of Brexit.

It is not simply individuals who are in the firing line for what Daniel Hannan has recently called “monstrous ineptness”, with the generic ‘Sir Humphrey’ accused of being “blinded by his closeness to his European counterparts”. And these are benign comments compared with the self-serving sabotage that civil servants are routinely accused of on social media. In making such accusations, the key board warriors are doing no more than parroting what has become a standard attack line from Brexit Ultras. This despite the fact that a major research study this year found no evidence whatsoever of civil service attempts to frustrate Brexit.

Although it’s impossible to be certain what’s going on inside government, the remarks of recently retired or resigned civil servants make it pretty clear. Civil servants doing their job of providing advice based upon evidence and practical realities are constantly having to say things which Brexiter politicians don’t like and don’t want to believe. As Sir Gus O’Donnell pugnaciously pointed out earlier this year, civil servants “look at the evidence and we go where it is … of course if you are selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts testing your products”.  That is quite evident in, for (particular) example, the numerous public statements of Sir Ivan Rogers since his resignation, for doing just that.

And it has an inevitability about it: whilst some of the claims that Brexiters make are in areas where there are legitimately debatable points of view (the abstract value of sovereignty, for example), many are based on simple errors of fact about which there can be no legitimate debate (the basic terms on which international trade operates, for example). The consequence is that civil servants have been asked to deliver impossible policies, and when they are, by definition, unable to do so they are accused of at best incompetence and at worse disloyalty.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Philip Hammond was accurate in describing the way Boris Johnson approached Brexit discussions: “Boris sits there and at the end of it he says ‘yeah but, er, there must be away, I mean if you just, if you, erm, come on Phil, we can do it. I know we can get there’. And that’s it”. But that is not just about Johnson, even though he may be an especially egregious example. It is what has characterised the approach of pretty much all the high profile Brexiters: no concrete and realistic proposals are made, but a vague ‘can do’ attitude is invoked as if that can substitute for such proposals. It is this which has dogged Brexit all along: no viable plan is put forward and any attempt to do so immediately divides Brexiters amongst themselves.

All of this points to something deeper and much more dangerous. What is going on, as an aspect of a wider culture war, is a collision between technocratic politics based upon rational argument and evidence, and faith-based politics based upon feeling and sentiment (this is, at least in part, the thesis of William Davies’ recent book Nervous States).

No doubt both have always been in some degree present – and it would be a soulless politics indeed that was purely technocratic. But it becomes extremely problematic when feeling and sentiment completely swamp rationality and evidence. That is not just because it creates unworkable policy but because it becomes self-re-enforcing: the more the policy fails, the greater the belief that with more faith it would work. It’s not just that it isn’t evidence-based or even that it is evidence-immune, it is that it thrives on evidence that contradicts it.

What is problematic becomes a serious danger when it gets combined, as has happened with Brexit, with cult-like demands for loyalty, and a tribalism that insists that those who do not share the faith are not just unbelievers but enemies, traitors and saboteurs. It is that world that the more Jacobin Brexiters are liable to create, one in which every institution, every policy and – in the end – every person is assessed for fidelity to the pure, true flame of Brexit faith. There is much written of the economic damage of Brexit, but if this is the politics we end up with then that will be a damage far greater and even less retrievable.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Britain's incompatible red lines are bringing Brexit to the crunch point

It has become increasingly difficult in the last few days to make sense of what is happening with Brexit, partly because of the swirl of rumours and counter-rumours, partly because of the ever more confusing terminology of backstops and backstops to backstops, and wildly different versions of what is being proposed and by whom.

Standing back, what we are seeing is what was always going to happen sooner or later as a result of pursuing a policy with multiple different parts, some of which are by definition irreconcilable. The ultimate root of that lies in the numerous contradictory claims made by the Leave campaign. With respect to the issue of greatest current controversy, the leavers claimed that Brexit would make no difference at all to the Irish border. That could only have been true for the softest, “Norway +”, Brexit which those same campaigners have since said would be no Brexit all.

But as the leave campaign often stated, it was not a government and it would be for a government to set the actual shape of Brexit. Thus the more proximate reason for what is unfolding is Theresa May’s decision to frame Brexit in terms of a series of incompatible red lines. The moment she announced that Brexit meant leaving the single market and having no customs union, but that the land border in Ireland must remain invisible and unchanged she set up some version of the current impasse.

There is by definition no way of being outside of the institutions that abolish borders without creating borders. And that is so irrespective of any future trade arrangement (other than one which puts the UK back within those institutions in some form). It is precisely from that definitional truth that the insistence by the EU that there must be a backstop emerged. The UK could continue, if it wished, to imagine that the truth was different but for the EU, knowing that it wasn’t, the preservation of a fully open border had to be agreed as a fall back until the penny finally dropped, or in case it didn’t. Again by definition that backstop could not be time-limited. Otherwise, it would not be a backstop, for what would come after its expiry?

The unravelling of the phase 1 agreement

It was only by agreeing something along these lines that the phase 1 agreement (of ‘sufficient progress’ on the three withdrawal issues of the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border) was reached last December. It is worth recalling that the government hailed this as a triumph of negotiation and proof that critics of Brexit were mistaken. But almost immediately it began to unravel, to the extent that there have never been any significant phase 2 talks at all.

That unravelling was first signalled by David Davis’ almost immediate comment that there was nothing binding about what had been agreed. It became incontrovertible when the Prime Minister came out with a new red line – in large part because of her post-election alliance on the DUP – that a sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was unconscionable.

The phase 1 agreement had had an element of ‘constructive ambiguity’ about what, exactly, the backstop meant (captured in the slightly different implications of paragraphs 49 and 50 of the text) but, suddenly, that ambiguity was discarded and we were left with a British policy that now insisted on no border, anywhere, but, still, no single market and customs union. Far from progress having been made, we were back not just where we started but actually two steps behind that.

Ever since then, there has been a dance to try to avoid the implications of all these red lines that has gone through various permutations of different customs arrangements and assorted ways that Northern Ireland could be treated differently to Great Britain and yet be treated the same. That culminated in Chequers and then the subsequent (all-UK customs union plus Northern Ireland in, effectively, the single market) version which has now blown up. The core of that, on my understanding, is that to get DUP and Ultra support it needs to be time-limited, but if it is time limited then it can’t be a backstop. Last Friday May announced that an all-UK customs union with the EU would never be permanent; on Sunday when that was formally communicated in Brussels, what had been heralded as an imminent deal fell apart.

Meanwhile, the Ultras are in a world of their own. Some, including those like Boris Johnson who were in government at the time, profess not to have understood what the phase 1 agreement contained. All of them favour either a Canada type deal or a WTO no deal, but none of them seem to realise that both mean a border. Or, if they do realise it, they wish it away with the old standby of technological solutions.

Yet even this is contradictory since if they truly believe (as no one else does) that these solutions exist then it hardly matters if the backstop is not time-limited for, on their account, it would either never be used or would only have to be used temporarily. So what would be the problem with signing up to a permanent backstop? Unless, in fact, they realise that the technological solutions are chimerical? That is, if they believe, precisely as the EU do, that in the end the backstop will be needed.

As for Labour, their position – articulated again by Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons today - is stuck at advocating a UK-EU customs union, but the main issues as regards the Irish border are to do with single market membership.

What now?

As to what happens now, who knows? It’s inconceivable that the EU will agree to a Withdrawal Agreement that does not have a legally watertight, non-temporary, backstop provision for the Irish border. So if the government won’t, or can’t, agree to that then the talks are going to collapse – either now, or next month – and we are firmly in no deal territory. Cue an immediate political and economic crisis.

Or, Theresa May will accept, as she seemed to last December, a permanent backstop, possibly with some kind of ‘dual trigger’ held by both the EU and the UK as to when it ends. If so, she would have to accept the inevitable and possibly substantial cabinet resignations, very likely including Dominic Raab, a possible leadership challenge which she might see off, the loss of DUP support, and hope to get the agreement through the House of Commons with the help of Labour rebels and perhaps less ERG opposition than expected – on the basis that MPs would rather do that than face no deal.

If she succeeds, it will be a hodge-podge of an outcome, subject to endless dispute for years to come, and strategically awful for a services-based economy. If she fails, it’s back to no deal and crisis.

Which way May will jump is not clear. In the House of Commons today* she re-stated that the backstop would be temporary – if so, we go down the first route. But she was vague about stating how long it would apply for, and declined to answer a question about who would have the say on whether or when it ended. Instead, her line was that her hope was that it would never be used in the first place. That’s not especially informative, though, since it is not clear how it would be avoided by any proposed trade arrangement that is outside of the single market, nor is the issue of whether it ever gets used relevant to the terms in which the backstop is defined. So, again, May is still trying to avoid choosing between two incompatibles (in this case permanent versus temporary backstop) by dodging them (in this case by saying temporary but with no particular time limit).

Eventually, choices on this and many other Brexit issues will have to be made. And there is virtually no time left to do so: ‘eventually’ has morphed into ‘now’. As I have repeatedly argued on this blog, the politics of Brexit have been set up in a way that is impossible to deliver on. It follows that at some point that impossibility will become undeniably evident. We are at the beginning of that point.
*At the time of writing, the Prime Minister has made a statement to the House of Commons on the current situation and questions are ongoing. I am assuming that her responses to questions are unlikely to elicit anything substantially different to what she has said so far. If necessary, I will update this post accordingly.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The arguments against another referendum don't stack up

Several factors are combining to increase the momentum for a second referendum or “People’s Vote” which will be brought into focus by what is likely to be a very large demonstration in London on 20 October. These factors include the continuing uncertainty of what deal, if any, the UK can strike with the EU and whether it would be supported by a majority of MPs; the growing realization of what is at stake if there is ‘no deal’, and as a consequence growing realization of the scale of what is implied even if there is a deal of some sort; and Labour’s evolving if still ambiguous stance on another referendum.

Above all, there is the realization that the clock that has been ticking since March 2017 is now at one minute to midnight. If Brexit is to be averted by means of referendum it is pretty much now or never. The complexities of what any such referendum would involve in terms of Britain’s politics and constitution have been well-explained this week by the Constitution Unit of University College London. Meanwhile, Agata Gostynska-Jacubowska and Beth Oppenheim of the Centre for European Reform, also this week, have explained why it shouldn’t be assumed that the EU would welcome such a vote.

But even if all the practical and political obstacles could be overcome, just as there are growing calls for another referendum so too are there growing arguments being made against it as a matter of principle. Some of these are reprehensible if not downright disreputable. I mean, in particular, the claim that it could provoke violence from disgruntled Brexiters. That is wholly absurd. No one would have any defensible reason whatsoever to resort to violence simply because they were being asked to vote. They would have a perfectly clear and easy route to express their views: by voting leave again.

Less malign, but no less flawed, is the claim that since the referendum mobilised many, perhaps 3 or 4 million, people who do not habitually vote to do so it will in some way disenfranchise or disillusion them from ever voting again. I’m not sure if there is any evidence that those voters have now got the habit – for example, did they turn out for the 2017 General Election? – but in any case they are in no way disenfranchised by having the chance to vote in another referendum. More importantly, there’s no good reason to place a particular premium on the (supposed) feelings of those voters any more than any other group.

Nor can it be enough simply to state, as Theresa May does, that a second referendum is ‘not in the national interest’. That’s an elastic term anyway – as seen by the way that she invoked both to justify not holding an election after she became PM and to justify it when, in 2017, she decided to do so. It’s a particularly vapid argument when May has never given any reasons why Brexit itself is in the national interest, on any meaning of the term.

The serious case against another referendum

However, other arguments are both reasonable and serious. Robert Shrimsley, writing in the FT (£) this week, makes several of them including, correctly, that were such a vote to be to remain things would not simply revert to the status quo ante, with national unity restored at a stroke. That is an important corrective to those who think that the 2016 vote might just be consigned to history as a momentary hiccup or spasm or, indeed, that the vote caused rather than revealed and exacerbated national disunity.

But what he gives as his “fundamental” argument is much more contentious. He says it would be damaging to democracy if the remain side narrowly got their way: where would the former 52% go, especially after what would undoubtedly have been a vicious and divisive campaign? Populism and xenophobia would have a field day.

The problem with this, first and foremost, is that it seems logically impossible to argue that a democratic vote can, as a matter of principle, be undermining of democracy. In any case, it is a mistake to think of ‘the 52%’ as a homogenous group, caring deeply about EU membership and in sway to populist politics, any more than the 48% are homogenous. Or for that matter that for either group EU membership is something they care deeply about – it certainly wasn’t a burning issue for many people until the referendum. Moreover, proceeding with Brexit may well not assuage the anger of the 52% if and when they come to see its full consequences: who then will want to tell them that a second vote had been set aside as an impossibility in deference to their sensibilities?

Equally, Shrimsley’s central argument neglect the flip side issue of how divisive going ahead with Brexit – especially in a relatively hard form – will be, and what it means for the 48%, who have been treated with such contempt by the ‘winner takes all’ way that the narrow vote to leave has been interpreted. That itself is hugely divisive, especially in its treatment of the majorities amongst various groups – the young, those who work, the Scottish, the Northern Irish – who voted remain, and will linger with many political and cultural consequences, not all of them foreseeable, for many decades.

In short, anger, division and distrust have already been implanted into Britain by the 2016 vote and so whilst it is true that another referendum won’t solve that, it doesn’t follow that not having another referendum will do so. Better to approach the whole issue not in those terms, but in the more simple and practical ones of whether the majority of voters (still) want to leave the EU.

A different set of arguments were made this week by one of the most influential analysts of Brexit David Allen Green, also of the FT but writing on his own Jack of Kent blog. His core claim is that the only way to rid the UK of the 2016 referendum mandate is to discharge it and leave the EU. At that point, it will have no further purchase, Brexiters should cease to refer to it and erstwhile remainers should work towards a “close association agreement”. His elegant argument is that this, once and for all, will take the 2016 vote out of the equation and – although he doesn’t use these words – the country can move on from it into a post-Brexit politics free of the toxic ‘will of the people’ cul-de-sac.

The difficulty with this is two-fold. First, I think it is highly unlikely that Brexiters will drop the idea that the Referendum result mandates their preferred form of Brexit, or that they will cease to get traction from it amongst their supporters. The form Brexit takes will, of course, still be very much under negotiation post-March 2019 because the future terms will only have been agreed in outline, probably vague outline. Thus post-Brexit politics will be as toxified by the legacy of the 2016 vote as the present politics.

Second, and rather obviously, a close association agreement is not what all (or even most?) remainers want. In the post-Brexit scenario there may still be all to play for from the point of view of the Brexiters (i.e. various different Brexit formats) whereas for those remainers, the one thing they want will be off the table for, presumably, decades. This, really, is the last chance they have.

If the majority want to leave, they’ll vote to leave again

Thus I don’t think that there is a good case, in principle*, against another referendum. The case for, by contrast, is rather strong. Without rehearsing it all again (for which see my post of last June) it includes the fact that many things were not, and could not have been, known at the time of the 2016 vote, and that many things have changed since then not just in the UK and the EU but in terms of Trump’s presidency, growing Russian aggression; and the persistent and growing questions about the funding and conduct of the referendum.

And even if none of this were true, or none of it is regarded as important, the fundamental point is that if people still want to leave then they will be free to vote to leave. It can’t make sense to enact a policy as the ‘will of the people’ and yet say that it would be wrong to ask the people again. It might be regarded as unnecessary, or a waste of time, or irritating, or insulting, or, indeed, divisive. But it can’t, in democratic terms, be wrong to hold a democratic vote.

That is not to assume that the result of a second vote would be to remain in the EU. The opinion polls do not show a decisive lead for remain and would be likely to narrow during another campaign, in which the very fact of there being another referendum would be mobilised as an ‘establishment’ ruse. Indeed, just as Brexiter MPs have now discovered the advantages of the Parliamentary ‘meaningful vote’ to which they were originally adamantly opposed, regarding it as a remainer trick, so too are there advantages to them in another referendum. Without it they will for years face accusations about how the original vote was won and bear the blame for its consequences. With it, were they to win, they could kill the remain cause stone cold dead.

None of which is to say that another referendum has anything much to commend it. It’s probably the worst option available – except for all the others.
*I haven’t discussed here another important recent argument against a second referendum, made by Professor Phil Syrpis on the LSE Brexit blog. That is because Syrpis’ argument is not, I think, against such a vote in principle, but rather that in the various scenarios he discusses it is impractical or unnecessary. Instead, he suggests that it is a distraction (for remainers) from arguing their case for rescinding Article 50 notification. I’m not sure that it needs to be either/or, though, and it’s not clear to me that however strongly that case is made – and, after all, many people have being making it loudly for years now - there is a plausible route to parliament deciding to rescind A50. Moreover, if a second referendum with a remain outcome were to lead to division, bitterness and disillusionment with politics how much more so would that apply to its happening via the votes of politicians? A referendum, at least, could be seen as legitimately overturning its predecessor – and is probably the only thing which could do so.